That hissing sound heard all around San Antonio late last night was the collective sigh of relief from Spurs fans following the team’s 121-96 win over the Houston Rockets in Game 2 of the 2017 NBA Western Conference Semifinals playoff series at AT&T Center.
Taking on the challenge of defending Houston’s MVP candidate, James Harden, for the bulk of Wednesday’s game, Spurs MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard emerged a clear winner in that head-to-head matchup. Making 13-of-16 shots, he scored 34 points and handed out a career playoff high eight assists. Harden, meanwhile, made only 3-of-17 shots.
By knotting the best-of-seven series at one game a piece, the Spurs avoided a historically daunting circumstance. In NBA history, only 31 teams with home court advantage in best-of-seven series have lost the first two games. Only three of those recovered to win the series.
It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to determine that is a less than 10% chance for survival, but that bit of statistical arcana no longer applies to the Spurs. Instead, they will head to Houston fresh off a victory secured by rediscovering the competitiveness and execution at both ends of the court that produced a 61-21 regular season record that earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
The sense of reprieve was leavened by concern for the well-being of veteran point guard Tony Parker, in obvious pain as he was carried to the locker room by teammates Dewayne Dedmon and Dejounte Murray after suffering a left leg injury early in the fourth quarter. The MVP of the Spurs’ 2007 NBA Finals, when the Spurs swept the Cleveland Cavaliers, Parker has been scheduled for a Wednesday morning MRI exam of his left leg.
Officially, the team said his status will be updated after results of the MRI are examined, but Gregg Popovich didn’t mince words when asked about his injury.
“It’s not good,” the Spurs coach said.
Manu Ginobili, Parker’s teammate since the 2002-03 season, went even further.
“It’s hard to see him limping and hurting now,” Ginobili said, “and you kind of know we’re not going to see him any time soon. So, that’s a tough blow.
“We’ll see. We don’t know. Tomorrow they’re going to tell us, but he was in pain. We’ll have to regroup, reorganize the starting five, and the rotations, and everything. We’ll try to step up, but it’s tough to lose a player like TP.”
Parker was one of the heroes of Wednesday’s victory, scoring 18 points and expertly directing an efficient Spurs offense in the first three quarters. He has been the team’s No. 2 scorer through the eight games of the team’s playoff run, averaging 15.9 points per game, but Ginobili understands the team will miss more than his scoring.
“We are playing a different style game now, with Kawhi holding the ball a lot and running those high pick and rolls and creating for others,” Ginobili said. “We don’t need as much as in the past a point guard that creates for everybody and runs all those pick and rolls. So, in that sense, I guess we’re going to have to find rotations without point guards for moments. But, besides that fact that Tony is our point guard we’re going to miss him in having him around – his experience, his big games, his big shots. It’s more about them than just who is going to start. We’re going to miss his presence. So, it’s going to be a tough one, but no excuses. We’ve just got to go compete and try to play our best games in Houston.”
The turnaround from Monday’s 126-99 loss in Game 1 was stark, a flip-flop of 52 points, and Popovich knew the reason why.
“We laid an egg in Game 1,” he said. “We didn’t play well in any facet of that game, and they did tonight. Tonight, we were better in transition. We guarded better in the half court. We rebounded better. We shot better, and that’s why you play these games. You never really know what’s going to happen, but attention to detail, as far as game plan and just basic basketball execution, will at least keep you in a ball game. We didn’t have that in Game 1. They came back and showed who they are tonight, and I was proud of them.”
Popovich tweaked his starting lineup, putting veteran Pau Gasol back in the starting center spot he occupied for 39 regular season games. He responded with an impactful 29 minutes, grabbing 13 rebounds, and blocking four shots.
“We made a couple of changes, or tweaks, as far as how we played and who played and whether we were big or small,” Popovich said. “It seemed to work out tonight, but this is just one night, one game, just like Game 1 was one game. So, nobody’s too excited about a win or a loss. You just go on to the next game.”
Gasol was relieved he made a positive impact in his first start since Jan. 17.
“I’ve been a starter my entire career,” said the veteran of 15 NBA seasons, “so it’s been an adjustment for me coming off of the bench. I tried to do well, and I think for the most part I’ve done well. I’m glad to be in the starting lineup, and I’m glad to have a positive impact on the game and help my team to win. That’s what I’m here for.”
Games 3 and 4 will be played at Toyota Center in Houston, where the Spurs defeated the Rockets twice during the regular season. Tipoff for Friday’s Game 3, to be televised by the TNT Network, is set for 8:30 p.m.